Dear Isabelle Trowler,
I am a trainee social worker. As a care experienced young person, I wanted to use my experiences to help others and stand up for their rights. What I didn’t expect was to feel uncomfortable as a gay student on my social work course.
I didn’t feel that I could share my experiences with my fellow student social workers because there was a lack of understanding and respect for LGBTQ+ issues. I knew that there were people on my course who did not agree with LGBTQ+ relationships and I was concerned about how they would react to me. I didn’t want to be judged or discriminated against. This in turn made me question whether these students would be able to practice in an inclusive, anti-discriminatory way.
I had not come out during my time in care or the early years of being a care leaver. However, I did live with a care leaver identifying as gay who felt they needed to hide their sexuality and relationships from their personal advisers, social workers and fellow care leavers for fear of discrimination. I have experienced care leaver social work frameworks and applications that were written solely in cisgender terms, while excluding LGBTQ+ options. This made me feel invisible.
Urgent overhaul of social work education
If we want social workers to engage in truly inclusive practice, there needs to be an urgent overhaul of social work education.
My social work course did not provide nearly enough training or resources on how to work with LGBTQ+ people. While I attended a variety of lectures on particular service user groups, such as those affected by gangs and youth violence, domestic abuse, learning disabilities and mental health, there were no lectures that acknowledged LGBTQ+ service users or covered sexuality and gender identity across the spectrum and how this is relevant for social work today.
I certainly felt that I could not openly discuss being gay or the need for greater awareness of LGBTQ+ service users.”
And it seems that the problem extends beyond my degree course. A 2014 study by academics from America and Canada found that social work students felt they were inadequately prepared to practice with LGBTQ+ service users, especially transgender service users, reporting there was almost no trans-affirmative training in social work courses.
The low level of readiness to practice with this group highlights the importance of social work education and the desperate need to focus on including LGBTQ+ topics such as terminology, gender-based oppression, queer theory and social constructionism in its research, course work and practice.
Worryingly, a 2015 report by Stonewall the Government Equalities Office (2019) found that 57% of health and social care professionals in general, and 55% of social workers in particular, did not consider sexual orientation to be relevant to a person’s health. This is despite numerous studies indicating that the LGBTQ+ population is at higher risk of complex needs than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.
Specialist LGBTQ+ practitioners
As a trainee social worker identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, my mission is to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ service users. I aim to promote LGBTQ+ education within the fields of health and social care and make LGBTQ+ needs visible within those discourses. I want to ensure that LGBTQ+ people, young and old, always have a safe space to be themselves, people they can turn to for support, and eradicate the barriers to accessing health and social care services. To make this a reality, I believe that there should be LGBTQ+ specialised social workers.
After I graduate, I want to be an LGBTQ+ specialised social worker and go into universities to hold sessions with student social workers to educate them on LGBTQ+ service users and their specific needs. I would also like to create a collaboration bringing LGBTQ+ social workers together to raise awareness.
To ensure that universities are properly preparing student social workers to work with the LGBTQ+ population I think courses should include an assessed piece of work covering gender/sexuality/queer studies. I would also like to see social work education providers utilise external organisations such as Mermaids UK and LGBT Foundation to educate their social work students.
But there are also steps that social workers can take right now to ensure that LGBTQ+ people feel genuinely supported:
- Social workers can ensure that they keep personal information confidential to ensure that the service user isn’t ‘outed’ without their knowing. For some LGBTQ+ people, having their gender or sexual identity revealed against their wishes can be dangerous. The fear of being outed is one of the main barriers preventing LGBTQ+ people from accessing services.
- Social workers can help to encourage LGBTQ+ inclusivity within their workplaces by wearing badges that show they are allies or displaying posters or artwork like those by Stonewall to create an accepting environment.
- Social workers can promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity further by being aware of the heteronormative structures present in today’s society. Personalisation is key when working with the LGBTQ+ community. Using frameworks that are revised to include the specific needs of LGBTQ+ people allows for their needs to be acknowledged.
Trainee social workers have a gap in their knowledge concerning the LGBTQ+ community, leaving them unable to offer adequate support to those service users. Let’s equip social work students with the skills and awareness they need and establish specialist LGBTQ+ social workers to ensure that we are offer fully inclusive practice.
Reena Syed is a student social worker and a participant in the Letters from Lockdown creative writing project run by children’s charity Coram. The project is part of the Voices Through Time programme of events for care experienced young people, exploring the history of care from 1700 to the present.